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Nov. 12, 2019, 9:25 a.m.

Is Big Entertainment funding great work in podcasting or gentrifying the ecosystem?

Plus: The overlap between podcasts and retail politics, the under-examined world of copcasts, and a message to you, from Rudy.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 234, dated November 12, 2019.

The podcast–entertainment industrial complex, revisited. Should I ever run out of ideas for columns, I’d probably get decent mileage out of revisiting older pieces with the purposes of revising, updating, and/or straight-up retracting. This would be one of those columns, except it’s not one born out of an ideas deficit. There’s a legitimate news peg here, one that brings into focus something that’s been floating in the background for a while now.

That peg is this recent Deadline story, which reports on a specific development that functions as a single data point within a larger trend. Here’s the news:

After adapting four podcasts into high-profile TV series, Homecoming, Dirty John and the upcoming Dr. Death and Joe Exotic, UCP is getting into the podcasting business itself with the launch of UCP Audio.

The podcast network is set to launch in 2020 with The End Up, a scripted podcast starring LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out), from Homecoming executive producer Sam Esmail’s Esmail Corp. banner and two unscripted podcasts featuring true-crime investigations, House of Prayer and the untitled Troubled Teen Industry Project. The new platform will release episodes weekly.

(Background, for the curious: UCP, née Universal Cable Productions, is a television production company that’s a subsidiary of NBCUniversal. It is perhaps best known as the producer behind much of USA Network’s “blue-sky” programming spread, a strategy that’s now dearly departed.)

The real meat of this story is deeper into the writeup. It’s in the following quote from Dawn Olmstead, UCP’s president, who was laying out the thinking behind the move:

“If there is something you want to say about the moment in society, podcast is allowing you to do that so much more quickly [than film or TV],” she said. “You don’t have to build sets, you don’t have to wait for availability for actors. You can literally write it that night and be in the audio booth the next day. There is something about the ability to get that story out of your head and into the public quickly that I think really resonates with the listeners because they are still in that zeitgeist or ether that created this moment.”

[…]

“We would never put a podcast in development that we don’t ultimately want to be a TV show,” Olmstead said. “We are only putting into development or production ideas that we definitely feel at the end of the day could be premium docu or premium scripted series. Our only end game is to create great TV shows.”

At some level, you’ve got to appreciate the honesty, even if it’s built on a stack of old cliches.

If one is moved by the spirit of charity, one could read and think about this UCP Audio business as a form of vertical integration: a perfectly rational next step in the podcast–film/TV relationship that adheres to the creature logic of capitalism. But one reader who forwarded this article to me was more pointed, using a more loaded phrase: digital gentrification.

You know the song. The relationship between the developed world of entertainment companies and the relatively pastoral hills of podcasting was once a collaborative, if not transactional one. Specifically, film and television companies identified podcasts that were popular or on the upswing for possible adaptation into their own more lucrative formats. That facilitated scenarios in which all parties — podcast creators, podcast audiences, film/TV creators, and film/TV audiences — could stand to derive some benefit from the end result.

The gameplan outlined by UCP Audio feels more like a gambit — to slather the scene with audio-only cosplays of film and TV products for the purposes of market testing, risk-reduction, and increasing the value of future projects. These half-baked, commoditized products could crowd out actual native works and contribute to an environment that only creates value for the film and TV people — if any value is even created, of course, as it’s entirely possible these projects mostly end up being sub-par experiences nobody wants to spend time with.

I should note that this isn’t a gripe specific to UCP Audio. As I mentioned, it’s but one data point in a much larger trend. I should show my cards at this point and mention I’ve heard variations of this thinking in various conversations with both podcast and film/TV companies in recent months. The only difference is that, in those conversations, folks used their inside voices.

If you’re the observant sort, you’ve probably already seen this particular writing on the wall for a while now. Personally, my history with the roots of this gripe can be broadly traced back to Sandra, the Gimlet fiction podcast from February 2018, which frustrated me then and infuriates me now. It’s 20 percent an interesting experience and 80 percent an obvious spec-script glow-up for what would be yet another foot soldier in the Golden Age of Peak TV. But my relationship to the gripe only really solidified around the time of Blackout, which struck me as a flashy but thoroughly boring facsimile of a B-movie thriller — and look, I love B-movies — that features a distractingly moribund lead performance from Rami Malek. He usually turns moribund into a positive; not so in this case.

Now, maybe you’re thinking: Yeah, yeah, Nick’s just being a big ol’ grump/elitist snob/lefty millennial who needs to diversify his ideology, so on so forth. Let’s be clear, though: I’m the idiot who thought that greater involvement by broader entertainment companies in podcasting is a really good thing. Worse still, I’m the idiot who believes it still can be a good thing, at least in aggregate.

Two years ago, I wrote an end-of-year column that, among other things, sought to process the growing “podcast–entertainment industrial complex.” Back then, the emerging trend primarily revolved around the adaptation pipeline, with the core interest being broader entertainment companies increasingly buying or licensing intellectual property from podcast creators to convert into other, more lucrative forms of media. Ah, the halcyon days of late 2017, when Aaron Mahnke’s Lore had just debuted on Amazon Video and we had yet to see Zach Braff hold a microphone (good lord).

I was generally hopeful about the so-called podcast–entertainment industrial complex, believing it to be a possible source of alternative power within the podcast ecosystem, the fate of which seemed at the time very much at the mercy of Apple, and only Apple.

Here’s what I wrote then:

I’m drawn to the argument that the fundamental value that this adaptation deal flow gives to the podcast industry extends beyond additional revenue, outside validation, and the creative thrill of working across mediums: In my mind, the intellectual property pipeline also represents a vital source of power for the industry that’s largely separate and apart from an Apple-defined value system.

In hindsight, that entire chunk — and probably the newsletter writ large, frankly — reeks with Pollyannaism. But for better or worse, I’ll stand by the spirit of the argument, particularly given the context of when it was written. Indeed, ~back in the old days~ podcast makers operated within parameters almost purely shaped by Apple. The ability to derive revenue, usually through advertising, depended on an analytics universe largely defined by Apple. The ability to access an elevated marketing push tended to depend on the curatorial decisions of the Apple Podcasts editorial team. The ability to project a feeling of momentum depended on the opaque, seemingly capricious algorithms of the Apple Podcasts charts.

In other words, whether intentionally or otherwise, Apple was the dominant source of power in a podcast ecosystem largely deprived of power. And so the way I saw it, with podcast creators facing tough analytics-related frictions on how they could generate more advertising revenue, the argument could be made that a tighter relationship with the film and television world could give podcast makers a shot at a remunerative future that isn’t solely dependent on what Apple, and Apple alone, is able to give. To put it another way: The broader entertainment industry offered podcast makers an alternative pathway to self-actualization. (Which, in hindsight, is somewhat ironic, I suppose, given that podcasting historically offered a reprieve for many natives of the broader entertainment world — most notably comedians.)

Again, for what it’s worth, I continue to think a net positive scenario is still viable over the long run. My understanding is that the adaptation pipeline behavior continues to persist: Podcasts are still being farmed for adaptation, and on top of that, it seems to be increasingly easy for native podcast talent to cross over into other forms of media, should they so desire. Sure, there’s some tension baked into this arrangement of the podcast–entertainment industry relationship — in particular whether these affordances would result in podcasting no longer receiving the best work of its native talents. But I’m inclined to see this as a problem worth having. Podcast talent should be properly rewarded, and if the podcast ecosystem needs to be pushed toward better compensation by brain drain concerns, then let’s have at it. At least those brains are being fed.

But the distinct problem with the trend embodied by the UCB Audio business is that it’s legitimately threatening to the base podcast community. It’s one thing if the increasing participation of entertainment companies creates value that can be flow to podcast creatives. It’s another thing altogether when it simply uses the podcast ecosystem to generate more power for those who already have it — more opportunities for those already abundant with opportunity — to the direct detriment of those native to the space.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe this is just my bias or whatever, but all I’m saying is: Look, totally cool if you wanna move here to these quiet podcast hills and, you know, buy a cheaper house or whatever. But be respectful of the locals, participate in the community, and contribute to the advancement of everyone around you, you know?

Two other things, before we move on:

(1) Directly related. I have a sense that this particular trend disproportionately impacts a particular slice of podcast makers: those who typically work with fiction and limited-run series.

(2) Indirectly related. Another reader sent me a note connection this story with another recent development, first reported by Variety, that saw Netflix beginning to produce original podcast programming. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure the connection is all that direct. The project discussed in the Variety report seems to fit into Netflix’s machinations around audio, which uses podcasts as a means to deepen audience engagement with existing film and television properties.

American Public Media Group has laid off twelve people as part of a restructuring, according to Current. The move was announced last Thursday, and though the specific job cuts were not formally highlighted, Current notes that employees at Southern California Public Radio and Minnesota Public Radio were affected. Additionally, an all-staff email from SCPR CEO Herb Scannell discussing the cuts was posted on the station’s website. More information can be found in the Current report.

Here’s something curious: The New York Times posted a new story yesterday on the state of Andrew Yang’s “some would say unlikely but he certainly wouldn’t” presidential bid. It seemed to peg the candidate’s surprising viability to his February 2019 appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience.

This is probably a good point to link back to a column I wrote in April about the increasing occurrence of retail politics in podcasting. But I think this specific Yang-Rogan case can be further complicated: In August, The Verge’s Makena Kelly wrote a piece that seems to more tightly associate The Joe Rogan Experience’s bump-giving capacity with the podcast’s prominence on YouTube. For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to buy into the perspective — YouTube likely played a heavier role in this instance.

Uhhhh. From Politico: “Giuliani considers launching an impeachment podcast amid public hearings.”

I think we should call it a day with the impeachment pods. Seriously, though.

Speaking of which…

Grandpa Grumps: Not that my opinion matters or anything, but I feel some sort of way about BuzzFeed eliminating its wildly talented PodSquad last fall — thus catalyzing an utterly insufferable discourse about the “podcast bubble” — only to replace them barely a year later with an iHeartMedia partnership.

Wait — is this a triple-grump week? Why yes indeed.

Uhhhh (part two). From The New York Times: “The Latest Entry in the True-Crime Serial Market: Copcasts.” Perhaps the thing that’s more unsettling about this trend of podcasts being started by law enforcement agencies…is the lack of substantial discussion about the complexities in this writeup.

Primal stream [by Caroline Crampton]. This one needs a windup. Back in June, I interviewed Alan Bennett from the HeadStuff podcast network in Ireland, who had just taken over a historic recording studio in Dublin and was about to reopen it as a podcast studio complex.

We were talking about the state of Irish podcasting more generally, speculating as to why Reuters research from 2018 shows podcast listening in Ireland to be so much higher (38 percent accessing a podcast in the last month) compared to its near neighbor the U.K. (18 percent). One of Alan’s ideas was that culturally, Irish people are much more at ease with a kind of oral storytelling that facilitates making or listening to a podcast. “Irish people, as the stereotype goes, are a nation of storytellers,” he said. “And they always like to talk and I think podcasting gives people the ability and the flexibility to do that on a slightly bigger scale.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d come across an attempt to connect podcasting with some historic tradition of storytelling, but I found the way he framed the point intriguing. To support the point, he told me that one of HeadStuff’s most popular shows is Motherfoclóir [Nick’s note: yep], a conversational podcast themed around the Irish language in which the hosts tell each other stories about how their language has shaped their lives, and hear similar anecdotes from listeners.

Similar comparisons have been made about other cultures with a strong historic connection to oral storytelling — the Sowt network in Jordan is one such example, where podcasting allows producers to tap into an existing familiarity with intimate storytelling, but also be more progressive in their topics than conventional live performances might allow.

I’ve always been aware that myths and folktales are popular subjects for podcasts — Lore is just one of the most prominent examples of a very healthy subgenre — but I’d long understood this phenomenon along logistical lines. The subject matter for these shows is generally in the public domain and pretty easy to research online. The stories rarely require interviews or extensive sound design to be told well, and the host probably won’t need to travel far or use fancy equipment to get good results. It’s just a good subject area for the self-starter, I thought, in the same way that non-investigative true crime is.

But my conversation with Bennett got me thinking about the more primal connections between audio, storytelling, and folklore. This is an idea that has been around basically as long as podcasts have, probably gaining more traction in the post-2014 era. In 2016, the creators of The Black Tapes put it very succinctly in an interview with the i newspaper: “In place of a tribe member telling you the tale of a wandering spirit outside your thatched roof village, it’s a voice on the other side of the planet uploaded to a server and delivered to your portable device through your headphones.”

I must admit I’ve heard people make the point that podcasting is just the twenty-first century incarnation of ancient fireside storytelling before, and it was one of those marketing-speak truisms that has always made my eyes roll. (See also: “intimacy.”) File it in the category of “probably true but mostly too vague to be meaningful.”

I’ve since revised my opinion on this completely, I think, and this can be partly credited to all the Irish folklore podcasts I’ve been listening to recently. Aside from Motherfoclóir, I’ve been really enjoying Fireside, which is making its majestic way through the historical cycle of Irish mythology via stories like the myth of Tír na nÓg and the adventures of medieval king Cormac mac Airt, and Blúiríní Béaloidis, a show made by the National Folklore Collection in Ireland to highlight fragmentary or lesser known stories.

What all these shows have in common is a kind of immediacy and specificity, which I hadn’t felt so strongly when listening to, say, Lore or Myths and Legends. The stories there are well told and neatly packaged, but they feel somewhat removed from their original contexts. What I’ve come to realize via listening to some of these Irish shows, or Audible’s recent folklore original production Hag, is that these shows can provide a very obvious and present connection, via storytelling, to the places where these stories originate today. I like the Donegal episode particularly of Motherfoclóir for this reason — two of the hosts originate from that isolated county, and therefore their anecdotes and reminiscences feel rooted in real life.

Hag does this in an especially overt way. Audible commissioned eight novelists from the U.K. and Ireland to tell a different folktale or fable, putting particular emphasis on providing a feminist or contemporary gender perspective. The folklore academic Professor Carolyne Larrington sourced the original stories, mostly choosing lesser-known material, and then writers who come from those particular places were commissioned to write their own version. Each episode includes a full performance of the new story, scored with original music, plus a discussion between the author and Larrington. (The Feminist Folklore podcast does a similar thing, as do other shows along the same lines.)

On the internet, there’s a tendency for stories to become separated from their geographical point of origin. But when the local element is reintegrated into these podcasts, they become something different. Making that link to oral storytelling customs feels more valid when a podcast is drawing on a lifelong connection to a place and its stories. That’s where the so-called intimacy of audio can really take us: a story told from my home, played in yours.

Central building illustration by Jessica Sandy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 12, 2019, 9:25 a.m.
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